Nigeria’s Boko Haram behind schoolboys’ abduction -audio message



FILE PHOTO: The leader of one of the Boko Haram group’s factions, Abubakar Shekau, holds a weapon in an unknown location in Nigeria in this still image taken from an undated video obtained on January 15, 2018. Boko Haram Handout/Sahara Reporters via REUTERS

December 15, 2020

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – A man identifying himself as the leader of Nigeria’s Boko Haram said on Tuesday the Islamist group was behind the abduction of more than 300 schoolboys, as anxious parents begged the government to secure their release.

Pupils who escaped kidnap on Friday, by jumping over the fence of the Government Science secondary school in Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria and fleeing through a forest, said the attackers were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rounded up their victims before marching them off.

Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language, has waged an insurgency in the northeast of Nigeria since 2009 but has not previously claimed attacks in the northwest.

The claims in the audio tape, if true, could mark a widening influence of jihadist groups operating in northeastern Nigeria, political analysts said.

They could also signal that jihadists have formed alliances with militant groups operating in the Sahel, which could further destabilise the impoverished north of Africa’s most populous nation which plays a pivotal role in regional stability.

The United States on Tuesday condemned “in the strongest terms” the abduction and was investigating Boko Haram’s claim, a spokesperson for the State Department said.

Katsina state authorities said about 320 boys were missing and Nigeria’s government said it had spoken to the kidnappers, who have sought a ransom from at least one parent.

“We’re begging the government to please try their best to get their release,” Hajiya Ummi, whose 15-year-old son Mujtaba is among those missing, said by telephone from her home in Bakori town in Katsina.

“His friends told me he was sick in bed when the bandits struck. He could hardly move but they dragged him out with the rest of the abducted students,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Katsina officials had ordered all of its state schools to close because they did not know the attackers’ motives. Neighbouring Zamfara state on Monday also ordered its government boarding schools to close, according to a circular seen by Reuters.

AUDIO CLIP

In an audio message which reached Reuters via a WhatsApp message, a man purporting to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said: “We are behind what happened in Katsina.”

“What happened in Katsina was done to promote Islam and discourage un-Islamic practices as Western education is not the type of education permitted by Allah and his holy prophet,” he said.

No video footage was released of the missing boys.

The man offered no proof for his statement. Reuters was unable to verify the audio and Nigerian authorities did not immediately comment.

Spokesmen for the presidency, police and army did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Regional security experts said Boko Haram may not have been involved in the abduction itself, but that the kidnappers could have sold the boys to the Islamist group.

Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM intelligence, said huge swathes of northwest Nigeria were ungoverned spaces where arms and people moved freely across porous borders.

“There is a danger that jihadists operating in the Sahel could potentially build alliances with groups that have previously remained in northeast Nigeria. That would further destabilise the region,” Nwanze said.

A Monday attack in the southern Diffa region of Niger, which borders Nigeria to the north, left 28 people dead and 800 homes burned. The Diffa governor blamed the assault on Boko Haram.

Boko Haram carried out the 2014 kidnap of more than 200 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok. About half the girls have been found or freed, dozens have been paraded in propaganda videos, and some are believed to be dead.

More than 30,000 people have been killed since Boko Haram began its insurgency, aimed at creating an Islamic state.

(Reporting by Maiduguri newsroom; Additional reporting by Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Alexis Akwagyiram and Libby George in Lagos, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Timothy Heritage and Tom Brown)





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In Nigeria’s EndSARS protests, a generation poised to seize the moment



Half of Nigeria’s population is under the age of 30. And many of them participated in the protests over police brutality that rocked the country last month – meaning their concerns aren’t going away soon.

Alleged abuses by a special police unit, called SARS, have for years prompted criticism and failed promises of reform. Although the government has now pledged to disband SARS, and protests have subsided, the youth-led movement is still keeping up pressure. And the youths’ demands go beyond immediate justice, to the corruption and inequality they consider pervasive in Nigerian politics. 

The protests were leaderless, but organizations like the Feminist Coalition led the fundraising to provide legal and medical aid to protesters. The rights group’s starring role reflects the generation’s increasing calls for gender equality. But its daily updates on how money was spent also underscored one of the protesters’ main demands: greater transparency.

Idayat Hassan, director of an Abuja-based think tank, says the Feminist Coalition has shown Nigerians the “true meaning of accountability in just two weeks.”

“They achieved a feat no Nigerian government has been able to achieve,” Ms. Hassan writes in an email. 

And the youth-led movement could fundamentally change the country’s political landscape, she says – especially at the next general elections in 2023.

Johannesburg

Amaka Amaku and her friend were singing along to the radio, driving toward the southwestern city of Ogbomosho, when police “came out of nowhere” to pull them over, she says.

The officers seized the duo’s phones and Ms. Amaku’s laptop because she did not have a receipt, then accused the 26-year-old entrepreneur of taking “hard drugs” when they found her contraceptives. Three of them kicked her friend out of the car and began driving Ms. Amaku away.

“I was afraid. I thought I would get kidnapped,” she says. “I didn’t have my phone, couldn’t scream, they were armed, and I didn’t know where my friend” was. They drove her to a nearby station, where other squad members showed up with her friend, and demanded a bribe to let them go, Ms. Amaku says. After some haggling, they agreed to pay 3,000 naira ($8).

The police unit that stopped them that October day three years ago was the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), disbanded last month amid weeks of protests across Nigeria and the diaspora beyond. Since its founding in 1992, the unit has perpetrated the very kinds of crime it was commissioned to prevent, critics say, with Amnesty International reporting at least 82 cases of “torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution” in the past three years alone.

But if protests have been suppressed – sometimes with violence – the movement’s broader aims are here to stay, many Nigerians say. The people driving #ENDSARS from the pages of the internet to the streets of Nigerian cities and now back online again are overwhelmingly young, like the country itself. Half of Nigeria’s estimated 182 million people are under 30.

Their generation, the first in decades to grow up in a democracy, is also fed up with its disappointments: the corruption and inequality that have become central concerns of their movement.

Bulama Bukarti, a sub-Saharan African expert at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, says the protests – the largest since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 – were a result of long-building frustration “and outrage that has accumulated over the years.”

“SARS has been a very brutal team for years and young people in Nigeria have been penting up the anger. They have been crying inwardly,” he says.

Demanding transparency

Outrage over the alleged abuses by SARS has simmered for years, prompting government pledges to reform. The latest tipping point for protests came in early October, when a viral video allegedly showed SARS members killing a young man in Delta state and driving off in his car. 

On Oct. 11, the government vowed to disband SARS. But trust between citizens and officials is low, particularly with previous promises not kept. And the situation worsened on Oct. 20, when soldiers shot into a crowd singing the national anthem and waving the flag at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, protesters’ de facto headquarters. At least 10 people were killed, according to Amnesty International. 

After initially denying involvement, the army admitted soldiers were present, but said they did not open fire on protesters, despite eyewitness reports. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement that “strongly condemns the use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos,” and called for an investigation.

Young people are most at risk of harassment and extortion from SARS officers, according to Amnesty’s report, particularly those with dreadlocks and tattoos (which a high-ranking police official linked to “cultism”), or expensive equipment. Nigeria’s well-funded technology sector has minted middle-class youths who can afford items considered luxuries in a country where 51% of the population lives in extreme poverty

But calls for accountability for police and beyond have resonated among youth for a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic frustrations. Unemployment among people ages 25-34 stands at 30.7%. Meanwhile, the affluence of the political class is often on display. President Muhammadu Buhari, for example, spent 10 days in London to treat an ear infection in 2016, despite the billions of naira budgeted for the clinic at the president’s residence. 

Young people took to the streets in the first place, Mr. Bukarti suggests, because they had no experience of military or colonial rule, when taking on the government was taboo.

“Young people are disentangled from the colonial and military mentality and showed that they are ready to take up leadership of their country and demand better,” Mr. Bukarti says.

The protests were leaderless, but organizations like the Feminist Coalition led the fundraising to provide legal and medical aid to protesters. The starring role of the rights group, whose leaders declined to be interviewed for this article, reflects the generation’s increasing calls for gender equality in a society still steeped in patriarchal attitudes. But its daily updates on how money was spent also underscored one of the protesters’ main demands: greater transparency in politics.

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based think tank, says the Feminist Coalition has shown Nigerians the “true meaning of accountability in just two weeks.”

“They achieved a feat no Nigerian government has been able to achieve,” Ms. Hassan writes in an email. 

The road ahead

Though street protests have ended, that clamor for accountability has not. Failed promises of police reform in the past have fueled this year’s protests, Mr. Bukarti says, making many Nigerians wary of the new pledge to disband SARS. In August 2018, for example, the government set up a judicial inquiry into SARS, but the commission’s finding has yet to be released to the public almost two years after its submission. 

Last week a panel in Lagos began hearings on police brutality, after waiting for the appointments of youth representatives. Protesters have demanded justice for the alleged victims of SARS, the release of arrested demonstrators, psychological training for SARS officers before their redeployment, and higher police pay to discourage extortion in the first place.

If sustained, the youth-led movement could fundamentally change the political landscape in Nigeria, especially at the next general elections in 2023, says Ms. Hassan.

“The politics of 2023 will not be the same; the youth who [make up] 51% of the voting population is going to decide and possibly in a different way,” she says. 



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‘Perfect storm’: How Nigeria’s peaceful police protests turned violent


October 27, 2020

By Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS (Reuters) – Tears fill Ephraim Osinboyejo’s eyes as he recalls the idealism that drove thousands of Nigerians like him into the streets to campaign against police brutality – and the night he saw young activists gunned down.

The 39-year-old businessman says he returned to Nigeria last year after two decades abroad because he wanted to help his country. When nationwide demonstrations began on Oct. 8, he volunteered to manage logistics at the main protest site in Lagos.

But what began as a largely peaceful movement, driven by young, tech-savvy activists who used social media to grab global attention, turned into some of the worst street violence the country has seen since the end of military rule in 1999.

Police and soldiers enforcing a curfew killed at least 12 people in two Lagos neighbourhoods on Oct. 20, according to witnesses and rights group Amnesty International. The army and police denied involvement.

In the following days, crowds set fire to police stations and government offices. Looting was reported at shopping malls and government food warehouses. Curfews were imposed on millions.

Protest organizers, some in hiding, are now urging followers to stay off the streets and campaign online as police have made their presence increasingly felt.

“I feel defeated. I feel disappointed. I feel sad,” Osinboyejo said at the Lekki district toll gate where hundreds had gathered to protest abuses by a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

Days later, cars were passing through the toll gate as the protests subsided. The image of a clenched fist daubed onto the road and a few Nigerian flags lying in a gutter were the only reminders of the joyful crowds who danced and sang there a week ago.

‘PERFECT STORM’

Protesters and government officials have both said that the people doing the looting and vandalism are not for the most part the same people who mobilised against police brutality.

“We completely condemn any form of violence or looting,” a coalition of protest groups said in a statement on Saturday.

Demonstrators accused officials of paying armed gangs to disrupt peaceful protests – a common tactic during elections, according to rights groups.

“If people cannot afford basic needs, you have people who are willing to do anything to get by,” Osinboyejo said.

Reuters could not verify the accusation. Videos of unidentified men attacking demonstrators in Lagos and the capital Abuja with knives and sticks were shared on social media early in the protests.

Spokesmen for the Nigeria Police Force and Interior Ministry did not respond to calls and text messages seeking comment.

Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu blamed criminal elements for the unrest, saying “miscreants were hiding under the umbrella of the protests to unleash mayhem”.

Police used live ammunition to disperse crowds in Lagos, Abuja and Jos, Amnesty International said.

While such shootings may have been the catalyst for escalating unrest, analysts also point to the parlous state of Africa’s biggest economy.

Some 35% of people aged 15-34 are unemployed. Families already struggling to put food on the table because of double-digit inflation also face rising fuel and electricity costs which the government can no longer afford to subsidize.

“The ingredients for a perfect storm have been there for a while,” said Malte Liewerscheidt, a vice president with New York-based risk consultancy Teneo.

The violence brought widespread criticism of President Muhammadu Buhari, with many questioning his control over security forces and angered by his failure to condemn the killings in his first speech after the incident. He is in his final term as president but his All Progressives Congress party could lose support from young voters.

LEKKI SHOOTING

SARS was disbanded on Oct. 11, but protests persisted with demonstrators calling for wider law enforcement reforms.

Around 2 p.m. on Oct. 20, news of a round-the-clock curfew started spreading through the crowd in Lekki, but many decided to stay, Osinboyejo said.

Around 7 p.m., armed men in army fatigues arrived, he said.

He and other organizers urged demonstrators to kneel down, wave flags and sing the national anthem, but the men raised their guns and shot into the crowd, six witnesses told Reuters.

“This place was a war zone,” Osinboyejo said. “The gunfire was relentless … I didn’t think we would see tomorrow.”

The army says its forces were not at Lekki that night.

Days later, Nicholas Okpe, 37, lay in a Lagos hospital wheezing and coughing from a bullet wound to the chest.

An unemployed driver, he said he was collecting litter dropped at the Lekki protest site when the shooting happened. For him the campaign is about more than police reforms – it is about justice.

“Anger is inside our belly. Because many of us don’t get work, we just get frustrated,” he said.

The Feminist Coalition – a rights group that raised 147 million naira ($385,000) for the protests through crowdfunding, said on Thursday it was no longer accepting donations.

It would use any remaining funds to cover medical and legal bills, and provide financial support to victims of police brutality.

“We are young Nigerians with hopes, dreams and aspirations for our country. This means we need to stay alive to pursue our dreams to build the future,” the statement said.

Despite his sadness, Osinboyejo remains optimistic for Nigeria.

“There are a lot of young people who have come together, for the first time maybe, to say they will not stand by and watch their country burn,” he said, choking back tears.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram; Additional reporting by Angela Ukomadu in Lagos and Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Giles Elgood)





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Armed bandits kill at least 18 in Nigeria’s Katsina state


MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Armed bandits in Nigeria’s northwestern state of Katsina killed at least 18 people, including a local official, and stole thousands of livestock on Sunday, two witnesses and a police spokesman told Reuters.

The eyewitnesses said as many as 500 men riding motorcycles, some brandishing assault rifles, charged into the Faskari local government area on Sunday afternoon.

“At least 18 person were confirmed killed by now and many others were suspected to be killed,” local resident Isma’ila Ya’u told Reuters by telephone.

The men went on to the nearby village of Sabon Garin where they killed local leader Abdulhamid Sani, 55, after attempting to kidnap him, the witnesses and a police spokesman said.

Sadiq Hasaan, another witness, said the men were headed with the stolen livestock towards other villages in the Batsari local government area, and thousands of residents had fled their homes.

Police spokesman Gombo Isa confirmed the attack, adding the assailants carried “sophisticated weapons”. He said security forces were “combing the forest with a view to arresting the hoodlums.”

Criminal gangs carrying out robberies and kidnappings have killed hundreds in the last year in northwest Nigeria.

The attacks have added to security challenges in Africa’s most populous country, which is already struggling to contain Islamist insurgencies in the northeast and communal violence over grazing rights in central states.

Reporting By Maiduguri newsroom; Writing by Libby George; Editing by Daniel Wallis



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Buhari asks Nigeria’s chief judge to free prisoners because of coronavirus


FILE PHOTO: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is seen at an African Union leaders summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has asked the chief judge to free prison inmates who have been awaiting trial for six years or more to ease overcrowding as the novel coronavirus spreads, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

A statement quoted Buhari as saying 42% of Nigeria’s 74,000 or so prisoners were awaiting trial. He urged Chief Judge Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad to reduce that number “since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible”.

Buhari said inmates with no confirmed criminal cases against them, elderly prisoners and those who were terminally ill could be discharged.

“Most of these custodial centres are presently housing inmates beyond their capacities and the overcrowded facilities pose a potent threat to the health of the inmates and the public in general in view of the present circumstances, hence the need for urgent steps to bring the situation under control,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Buhari pardoned 2,600 prisoners who were either 60 or older, terminally ill, or had less than six months left to serve of sentences of three years or more.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with some 200 million people. On Monday it said it had registered 665 cases of the coronavirus and 22 deaths.

Its measures to stop the spread of the virus include closing its borders and locking down the capital Abuja, the commercial hub, Lagos, and the adjacent state, Ogun.

Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Chijioke Ohuocha; Editing by Kevin Liffey



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